Daniel H. H. Ingalls
Learning Research Group
Xerox Palo Alto Research Center
3333 Coyote Hill Rd
Palo Alto, CA 94304
The purpose of the Smalltalk project is to provide computer
support for the creative spirit in everyone. Our work flows from a vision
that includes a creative individual and the best computing hardware available.
We have chosen to concentrate on two principle areas of research: a language
of description (programming language) that serves as an interface between
the models in the human mind and those in computing hardware, and a language
of interaction (user interface) that matches the human communication system
to that of the computer. Our work has followed a two- to four-year cycle
that can be seen to parallel the scientific method:
BYTE Magazine, August 1981. Reproduced with permission.
(c) by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., New York, NY.
All rights reserved.
The Smalltalk-80 system marks our fifth time through this cycle. In this
article, I present some of the general principles we have observed in the
course of our work. While the presentation frequently touches on Smalltalk
"motherhood", the principles themselves are more general and should prove
useful in evaluating other systems and in guiding future work.
Build an application program within the current system (make an observation)
Based on that experience, redesign the language (formulate a theory)
Build a new system based on the new design (make a prediction that can
Just to get warmed up, I'll start with a principle
that is more social than technical and that is largely responsible for
the particular bias of the Smalltalk project:
The point here is that the human potential manifests itself in individuals.
To realize this potential, we must provide a medium that can be mastered
by a single individual. Any barrier that exists between the user and some
part of the system will eventually be a barrier to creative expression.
Any part of the system that cannot be changed or that is not sufficiently
general is a likely source of impediment. If one part of the system works
differently from all the rest, that part will require additional effort
to control. Such an added burden may detract from the final result and
will inhibit future endeavors in that area. We can thus infer a general
principle of design:
Personal Mastery: If
a system is to serve the creative spirit, it must be entirely comprehensible
to a single individual.
Good Design: A
system should be built with a minimum set of unchangeable parts; those
parts should be as general as possible; and all parts of the system should
be held in a uniform framework.
In designing a language for use with computers,
we do not have to look far to find helpful hints. Everything we know about
how people think and communicate is applicable. The mechanisms of human
thought and communication have been engineered for millions of years, and
we should respect them as being of sound design. Moreover, since we must
work with this design for the next million years, it will save time if
we make our computer models compatible with the mind, rather that the other
Figure 1 illustrates the
principle components in our discussion. A person is presented as having
a body and a mind. The body is the site of primary experience, and, in
the context of this discussion, it is the physical channel through which
the universe is perceived and through which intentions are carried out.
Experience is recorded and processed in the mind. Creative thought (without
going into its mechanism) can be viewed as the spontaneous appearance of
information in the mind. Language is the key to that information:
The interaction between two individuals is represented in figure
1 as two arcs. The solid arc represents explicit communication: the
actual words and movements uttered and perceived. The dashed arc represents
implicit communication: the shared culture and experience that form the
context of the explicit communication. In human interaction, much of the
actual communication is achieved through reference to shared context, and
human language is built around such allusion. This is the case with computers
Purpose of Language: To provide a framework
It is no coincidence that a computer can be viewed
as one of the participants in figure 1. In this
case, the "body" provides for visual display of information and for sensing
input from a human user. The "mind" of a computer includes the internal
memory and processing elements and their contents. Figure
1 shows that several different issues are involved in the design of
a computer language:
This fact is responsible for the difficulty of explaining Smalltalk to
people who view computer languages in a more restricted sense. Smalltalk
is not simply a better way of organizing procedures or a different technique
for storage management. It is not just an extensible hierarchy of data
types, or a graphical user interface. It is all of these things and anything
else that is needed to support the interactions shown in figure
design of a language for using computers must deal with internal models,
external media, and the interaction between these in both the human and
|Figure 1: The
scope of language design. Communication between two people (or between
one person and a computer) includes communication on two levels. Explicit
communication includes the information that is transmitted in a given message.
Implicit communication includes the relevant assumptions common to the
The mind observes a vast universe of experience,
both immediate and recorded. One can derive a sense of oneness with the
universe simply by letting this experience be, just as it is. However,
if one wishes to participate, literally to take a part, in the universe,
one must draw distinctions. In so doing one identifies an object in the
universe, and simultaneously all the rest becomes not-that-object. Distinction
by itself is a start, but the process of distinguishing does not get any
easier. Every time you want to talk about "that chair over there", you
must repeat the entire processes of distinguishing that chair. This is
where the act of reference comes in: we can associate a unique identifier
with an object, and, from that time on, only the mention of that identifier
is necessary to refer to the original object.
We have said that a computer system should provide
models that are compatible with those in the mind. Therefore:
The Smalltalk storage manager provides an object-oriented model of memory
for the entire system. Uniform reference is achieved simply by associating
a unique integer with every object in the system. This uniformity is important
because it means that variables in the system can take on widely differing
values and yet can be implemented as simple memory cells. Objects are created
when expressions are evaluated, and they can be passed around by uniform
reference, so that no provision for their storage is necessary in the procedures
that manipulate them. When all references to an object have disappeared
from the system, the object itself vanishes, and its storage is reclaimed.
Such behavior is essential to full support of the object metaphor:
Objects: A computer language should support the concept of "object"
and provide a uniform means for referring to the objects in its universe.
A way to find out if a language is working well is to see if programs look
like they are doing what they are doing. If they are sprinkled with statements
that relate to the management of storage, then their internal model is
not well matched to that of humans. Can you imagine having to prepare someone
for each thing you tell them or having to inform them when you are through
with a given topic and that it can be forgotten?
Storage Management: To
be truly "object-oriented", a computer system must provide automatic storage
Each object in our universe has a life of its own.
Similarly, the brain provides for independent processing along with storage
of each mental object. This suggests a third principle of design:
Just as programs get messy if object storage is dealt
with explicitly, control in the system becomes complicated if processing
is performed extrinsically. Let us consider the process of adding 5 to
a number. In most computer systems, the compiler figures out what kind
of number it is and generates code to add 5 to it. This is not good enough
for an object-oriented system because the exact kind of number cannot be
determined by the compiler (more on this later). A possible solution is
to call a general addition routine that examines the type of the arguments
to determine the approximate action. This is not a good approach because
it means that this critical routine must be edited by novices who
just want to experiment with their own class of numbers. It is also a poor
design because intimate knowledge about the internals of objects is sprinkled
throughout the system.
Messages: Computing should be
viewed as an intrinsic capability of objects that can be uniformly invoked
by sending messages.
Smalltalk provides a much cleaner solution: it sends
the name of the desired operation, along with any arguments, as
a message to the number, with the understanding that the receiver
knows best how to carry out the desired operation. Instead of a bit-grinding
processor raping and plundering data structures, we have a universe of
well-behaved objects that courteously ask each other to carry out their
various desires. The transmission of messages is the only process that
is carried on outside of objects and this is as it should be, since messages
travel between objects. The principle of good design can be restated for
Examples of success in this area include LISP, which
is built on the model of linked structures; APL, which is built on the
model of arrays; and Smalltalk, which is built on the model of communicating
objects. In each case, large applications are viewed in the same way as
the fundamental units from which the system is built. In Smalltalk especially,
the interaction between the most primitive objects is viewed in the same
way as the highest-level interaction between the computer and its user.
Every object in Smalltalk, even a lowly integer, has a set of messages,
a protocol, that defines the explicit communication to which that
object can respond. Internally, objects may have local storage and access
to other shared information which comprise the implicit context of all
communication. For instance, the message + 5 (add five) carries an implicit
assumption that the augend is the present value of the number receiving
Uniform Metaphor: A language should be designed around a powerful
metaphor that can be uniformly applied in all areas.
A uniform metaphor provides a framework in which
complex systems can be built. Several related organizational principles
contribute to the successful management of complexity. To begin with:
Modularity: No component in a complex system should depend on
the internal details of any other component.
|Figure 2: System complexity. As the number of components
in a system increases, the chances for unwanted interaction increase rapidly.
Because of this, a computer language should be designed to minimize the
possibilities of such interdependence.
This principle is depicted in figure
2. If there are N components in a system, then there are roughly
potential dependencies between them. If computer systems are ever to be
of assistance in complex human tasks, they must be designed to minimize
such interdependence. The message-sending metaphor provides modularity
by decoupling the intent of a message (embodied in its name) from
the method used by the recipient to carry out the intent. Structural
information is similarly protected because all access to the internal state
of an object is through this same message interface.
The complexity of a system can often be reduced
by grouping similar components. Such grouping is achieved through data
typing in conventional programming languages, and through classes
in Smalltalk. A class describes other objects -- their internal state,
the message protocol they recognize, and the internal methods for responding
to those messages. The objects so described are called instances
of that class. Even classes themselves fit into this framework; they are
just instances of class Class, which describes the appropriate
protocol and implementation for object description.
Classification is the objectification of nessness. In other words,
when a human sees a chair, the experience is taken both literally an "that
very thing" and abstractly as "that chair-like thing". Such abstraction
results from the marvelous ability of the mind to merge "similar" experience,
and this abstraction manifests itself as another object in the mind, the
Platonic chair or chairness.
Classification: A language must provide a means for classifying
similar objects, and for adding new classes of objects on equal footing
with the kernel classes of the system.
Classes are the chief mechanism for extension in
Smalltalk. For instance, a music system would be created by adding new
classes that describe the representation and interaction protocol of Note,
and so on. The "equal footing" clause of the above principle is important
because it insures that the system will be used as it was designed. In
other words, a melody could be represented as an ad hoc collection of Integers
representing pitch, duration, and other parameters, but if the language
can handle Notes as easily as Integers, then the user
will naturally describe a melody as a collection of Notes. At
each stage of design, a human will naturally choose the most effective
representation if the system provides for it. The principle of modularity
has an interesting implication for the procedural components in a system:
A conventional statement of this principle is that a
program should never declare that a given object is a SmallInteger
or a LargeInteger, but only that it responds to integer protocol.
Such generic description is crucial to models of the real world.
Polymorphism: A program should specify only the behavior of objects,
not their representation.
Consider an automobile traffic simulation. Many
procedures in such a system will refer to the various vehicles involved.
Suppose one wished to add, say, a street sweeper. Substantial amounts of
computation (in the form of recompiling) and possible errors would be involved
in making this simple extension if the code depended on the objects it
manipulates. The message interface establishes an ideal framework for such
an extension. Provided that street sweepers support the same protocol as
all other vehicles, no changes are needed to include them in the simulation:
There are many reasons for this principle. First of all, it saves time,
effort, and space if additions to the system need only be made in one place.
Second, users can more easily locate a component that satisfies a given
need. Third, in the absence of proper factoring, problems arise in synchronizing
changes and ensuring that all interdependent components are consistent.
You can see that a failure in factoring amounts to a violation of modularity.
Factoring: Each independent component in a system would appear
in only one place.
Smalltalk encourages well-factored designs through
Every class inherits behavior from its superclass. This inheritance extends
through increasingly general classes, ultimately ending with class Object
which describes the default behavior of all objects in the system. In our
traffic simulation above, StreetSweeper (and all other vehicle
classes) would be described as a subclass of a general
class, thus inheriting appropriate default behavior and avoiding repetition
of the same concepts in many different places. Inheritance illustrates
a further pragmatic benefit of factoring:
Take the case of sorting an ordered collection of objects.
In Smalltalk, the user would define a message called sort in the
class OrderedCollection. When this has been done, all forms of
ordered collections in the system will instantly acquire this new capability
through inheritance. As an aside, it is worth noting that the same method
can alphabetize text as well as sort numbers, since comparison protocol
is recognized by the classes which support both text and numbers.
Leverage: When a system is well factored, great leverage is available
to users and implementers alike.
The benefits of structure for implementers are obvious.
To begin with, there will be fewer primitives to implement. For instance,
all graphics in Smalltalk are performed with a single primitive operation.
With only one task to do, an implementer can bestow loving attention on
every instruction, knowing that each small improvement in efficiency will
be amplified throughout the system. It is natural to ask what set of primitive
operations would be sufficient to support an entire computing system. The
answer to this question is called a virtual machine specification:
The Smalltalk virtual machine establishes an object-oriented model for
storage, a message-oriented model for processing, and a bitmap model for
visual display of information. Through the use of microcode, and ultimately
hardware, system performance can be improved dramatically without any compromise
to the other virtues of the system.
Virtual Machine: A virtual machine specification establishes
a framework for the application of technology.
A user interface is simply a language in which most
of the communication is visual. Because visual presentation overlaps heavily
with established human culture, esthetics plays a very important role in
this area. Since all capability of a computer system is ultimately delivered
through the user interface, flexibility is also essential here. An enabling
condition for adequate flexibility of a user interface can be stated as
an object-oriented principle:
This criterion is well supported by the model of communicating objects.
By definition, each object provides an appropriate message protocol for
interaction. This protocol is essentially a microlanguage particular to
just that kind of object. At the level of the user interface, the appropriate
language for each object on the screen is presented visually (as text,
menus, pictures) and sensed through keyboard activity and the use of a
Reactive Principle: Every component accessible to the user should
be able to present itself in a meaningful way for observation and manipulation.
It should be noted that operating systems seem to
violate this principle. Here the programmer has to depart from an otherwise
consistent framework of description, leave whatever context has been built
up, and deal with an entirely different and usually very primitive environment.
This need not be so:
Here are some examples of conventional operating system components that
have been naturally incorporated into the Smalltalk language:
Operating System: An operating system is a collection of things
that don't fit into a language. There shouldn't be one.
Smalltalk has no "operating system" as such. The necessary
primitive operations, such as reading a page from the disk, are incorporated
as primitive methods in response to otherwise normal Smalltalk messages.
Storage management -- Entirely automatic. Objects are created by a message
to their class and reclaimed when no further references to them exist.
Expansion of the address space through virtual memory is similarly transparent.
File system -- Included in the normal framework through objects such as
and Directories with message protocols that support file access.
Display handling -- The display is simply an instance of class Form,
which is continually visible, and the graphical manipulation messages defined
in that class are used to change the visible image.
Keyboard Input -- The user input devices are similarly modeled as objects
with appropriate messages for determining their state or reading their
history as a sequence of events.
Access to subsystems -- Subsystems are naturally incorporated as independent
objects within Smalltalk: there they can draw on the large existing universe
of description, and those that involve interaction with the user can participate
as components in the user interface.
Debugger -- The state of the Smalltalk processor is accessible as an instance
of class Process that owns a chain of stack frames. The debugger
is just a Smalltalk subsystem that has access to manipulate the state of
a suspended process. It should be noted that nearly the only run-time error
that can occur in Smalltalk is for a message not to be recognized by its
As might be expected, work remains to be done on
Smalltalk. The easiest part to describe is the continued application of
the principles in this paper. For example, the Smalltalk-80 system falls
short in its factoring because it supports only hierarchical inheritance.
Future Smalltalk systems will generalize this model to arbitrary (multiple)
inheritance. Also, message protocols have not been formalized. The organization
provides for protocols, but it is currently only a matter of style for
protocols to be consistent from one class to another. This can be remedied
easily by providing proper protocol objects that can be consistently shared.
This will then allow formal typing of variables by protocol without losing
the advantages of polymorphism.
The other remaining work is less easy to articulate.
There are clearly other aspects to human thought that have not been addressed
in this paper. These must be identified as metaphors that can complement
the existing models of the language.
Sometimes the advance of computer systems seems
depressingly slow. We forget that steam engines were high-tech to our grandparents.
I am optimistic about the situation. Computer systems are, in fact, getting
simpler and, as a result, more usable. I would like to close with a general
principle which governs this process:
Even as the clock ticks, better and better computer support for the creative
spirit is evolving. Help is on the way.
Natural Selection: Languages and systems that are of sound design
will persist, to be supplanted only by better ones.
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